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Clicker 5 Preview

Crick Software recently had two special top-secret preview days of Clicker 5 at Crick House in Northampton. I was fortunate enough to be invited along to the first of these where I found out all about Crick's new version of their flagship software. Clicker 5's official launch will take place at BETT in January hence this review is really a preview! Crick tell me that the software should be available very early in 2005, if not at BETT then few weeks afterwards.

This preview will look at the major differences between Clicker 4 and Clicker 5 so you can decide for yourself whether it's worth the upgrade. I should point out that although I did get to use Clicker 5 it was still officially in development at the time and I haven't got my own copy to put through its paces. Also some features mentioned may, I suppose, not appear in the final version for one reason or another. Likewise Crick may end up squeezing in an extra feature or two prior to release.

Crick Software have been working really hard on the latest incarnation of Clicker. They have spoken to people in schools and recorded feedback from support calls. Also much feedback has obviously come from their own grid-creating team as the creation of grids is now much easier. Clicker 5 is a complete rebuild of version 4 from the ground up but has stayed true to all its experienced users. I found it easy to use and my years of practice with Clicker 4 have not gone to waste.

Clicker Writer

Clicker 5 ScreenshotClicker Writer is the word processor that sits on top of the grids in Clicker. The major improvements in this area were quickly noticed. The first is a vastly improved speech engine with a realistic UK English voice using the Elan Sayso synthesizer. This may prove too slow to process on some old computers, but Clicker 5 will come bundled with the old voices as well. The new Auto-Capitalization (similar to that found in Word) is especially useful when using Grids, and the much desired highlighting of text as it is spoken is a fantastic addition. In the pre-release version of Clicker that I used this was restricted to a dark blue highlight that made the words difficult to see, but hopefully Crick will address this before they launch it. Clicker Writer also now automatically highlights spelling errors with a red squiggly line under incorrect words. Clicker's pictures (as-you-type and for putting in the grids) have also been massively overhauled and a wide selection of well-drawn age-appropriate images are available. Clicker Writer was designed to be a simple word processor so not many new features have been added but as with the rest of Clicker it has a slick new feel to it that matches the modern styling found in the most up-to-date Windows applications.

Clicker Grids

With Clicker Grids (the important bit that sits under Clicker Writer) there are more important differences and new features. Most of these new features relate to the creation of new and custom grids or for editing existing grids. It's worth noting that existing Clicker 4 grids can be loaded into Clicker 5 so you won't have to remake a whole stack of your favourite grids. But of course Crick are likely to concentrate new grids on for Clicker 5 which you won't be able to open in Clicker 4.

First off Grids no longer come as a bundle of files that are difficult to keep together. A single XML file contains a set of grids that link together as well as all the graphics, sound and video files that are part of the set. This makes grids easier to manage and much easier to share, via the Internet or email for example.

Click to enlarge screenshotThe properties of this single file can be managed via a very intuitive new part of Clicker called the Grid Explorer. It is now possible to lay down a set of grids in a thumbnail strip and the links between each one will be automatically created just by drag-and-drop. Therefore it's really easy to change the order of grids and you don't need to worry about what names to use or which one is the starting grid.

The set can also contain one or more Master Grids that allow you to create new grids based on a template. When you change the Master Grid this also affects the new grids you have created, so for example if you have a set about magnetism and the background is yellow but you're working with an Autistic child who doesn't like yellow then the change can be made on a single grid and this will be reflected across the entire set. The new features and refined procedures in Clicker 5 really do concentrate on making grids easier to create and manage. If you want to add a cell to a grid there is now a floating Cell Palette that lets you drag pre-designed cells (rectangles, curved rectangles and even circles) straight onto your grid. The Palette contains pre-made cells for back and forward arrows, printing, and so forth and the new style cells can contain multiple lines of text (but not multiple fonts or colours - you would still use Text Boxes for that function).

The ability for Clicker grids to be able to send to any application outside of Clicker has been removed in version 5. This is a real shame for me as I often used Clicker 4 in combination with other applications to provide switch access for all sorts of functions. John Crick did quietly mumble something about another product that may eventually address this situation so I'll keep my ear to the ground there. I suppose that the vast majority of Clicker 4 users use the grids to send text within Clicker and the removal of this feature does simplify things.

Although you can still perform a shift+left click to edit a cell and a shift+right click to go to its properties, Clicker 5 has an Edit Mode similar to that found in Cloze Pro. This means there's a clear distinction between Clicker being used by a pupil and Grids being created by a teacher. It also makes things a lot easier for everyone although sometimes it can be confusing why something isn't working - until you realise that you are or aren't in the right mode. But thanks to Edit Mode there's now no need to hold awkwardly hold ALT to resize and move cells. Now you can simply drag them around like clipart in a word processor with clear handles for resizing.

Another great feature that makes creating and editing grids easy is the ability to drag-and-drop pictures and video directly from Windows folders straight onto existing cells. This means if you have a digital photograph of the classroom, for example, you can simply drag and drop it into a Clicker Cell in order to create a hotspot or labeling activity.

Picture cells are gone because now you can easily place one cell on top of another. Although you could do this in Clicker 4 it was a little cumbersome as you couldn't change the order as to which one was 'on top' of the other and so you had to make sure that you laid your cells in exactly the right order. Now you can right-click on a cell to change it's order, to cut and paste it or adjust its properties. This means that you can plonk a picture into a large cell and then put hotspot cells on top of it. Pictures within cells that contain text have previously chosen automatically whether to go above or to the left of the text. This can now be set manually by right-clicking on the cell. Clicker 5 accepts a greater range of picture formats including the EMF files used by WWS2000's Widgit Symbol library. This means that you should be able to easily drag and drop Widgit and PCS symbols into Clicker, or add the entire library for symbol-supported learning.

Clicker 5 also now accepts MP3 files and modern video formats such as MPEG. This means that, legality issues aside, you can now rip CDs using CDEX and use the relatively tiny MP3 format for voice recordings and so forth. MPEG videos are the usual format recorded by digital cameras so classroom activities and messages from parents, teachers, and pupils can be directly dragged-and-dropped into Clicker cells!

The way in which Clicker 5 accesses picture libraries has been revamped too and now uses language-table wordlists similar to those used by WWS2000. This means that more than one graphic can represent a word and when you make a grid you can choose from a selection of suitable pictures in a similar way as you might use the F12 key in WWS2000. It also means that any given word can have more than one picture (For example the word 'saw' has multiple meanings). Since originally writing this review John Crick kindly pointed out that Clicker 5 will continue to read from filenames as well so you don't need to use the look-up table unless specifically required.

One feature that people have been requesting is the ability to force a user to construct a sentence in the correct order. Sentence-building grids can often produce text that isn't in a proper order if your user clicks on cells at random or doesn't entirely grasp what's being asked of them. Now groups of cells can be greyed-out while each stage of the sentence is completed. You could accomplish this before but it meant creating a lot of grids and was a very time consuming process.

Click to enlarge screenshotOne major new feature of Clicker 5 yet to receive a mention are Pop-up Grids. These are floating grids that appear when a cell is selected on top of the grid you are currently working on. By sending text to a grid they are great for labeling and sorting exercises. In theory you could also do some Cloze Procedures although I like ClozePro too much to suggest that. The image on the right shows a volcano activity where a pupil fills in text within the grid rather than into Clicker Writer by selecting words from the pop-up.

The pop-ups are regular grids containing regular cells so instead of text these cells could contain pictures. This is great for creating switch-accessible simple multimedia activities that test and/or develop choice. For example the box at the bottom could ask 'Which one is Mummy?' (which of course can be read aloud) and the pop-up could contain three or four pictures. Select the correct picture and we could make use of that MPEG video feature (which incidentally can be set to be shown full-screen!). I noticed that variables could be set by selecting cells and then checked later. Although I could not get this working in this pre-release version the ability to set true/false variables and read them back later is very useful.

There are a few features that are missing from Clicker 5 that I hope will be developed before or relatively soon after the release date. The first is that the ability to trap the mouse is no longer available. Also there is no prediction currently available within grids that is usually provided by Penfriend. Finally Crick are working on speech highlighting that tracks real, recorded speech rather than just the (realistic) synthetic voice. This last feature is more likely to provided as part of an SDK add-on for serious grid designers rather than with Clicker itself.

Switch Access

Switch access was not available in the original release of Clicker 5 and took several months before it became available. In Clicker 5 switch access is only available via a games-emulating USB switch interface. Keyboard-emulating switch interfaces such as the popular Don Johnston models will not work.

Learning Grids External Link (previously known as CGfL) is also expecting a revamp in line with the release of Clicker 5. New grids can be downloaded directly from and into Clicker 5 without the need to launch a web browser and consequently avoiding the common problem of losing the grid set once it's downloaded. The whole interface of LearningGrids looks a lot more sensible, making it easier to find and download grids. It should also be possible to 'own' a little space on Crick's server in order to save grids for use in multiple schools but this is currently in discussion.


All in all I'm very pleased with this fresh new update to Clicker.

On the plus side

To be honest I think that Crick Software would have liked to have seen more people create and share their grids and since this has been rather lacking they've now made it easier to accomplish this. A lot easier. And although that's the biggest difference the entire package is easier to use, too. And it's more fun and looks better! I'm already thinking of ideas I'd like to try with it such as a multiple-page multiple-choice multimedia extravaganza to try and bunk some pupils up from hit-and-happen switch activities. I've always been able to use Clicker 4 to make motivating activities orientated around the individual and with Clicker 5 I can take this much further. I'd like to summarise all the good points but I can't fit them in - so make sure you read the whole preview above!

On the down side

Clicker 5's inability to send its grids to other programs limits its flexibility. Most people didn't use this feature but for me ir was a large part of what made it such a powerful program.

The other large downside is its lack of support for many existing switch interfaces.

Clicker 5 will, I hope, get people creating and sharing exciting new grids and making learning more fun, more motivating and more appropriate for the pupils we all work with. But don't throw out your copy of Clicker 4 - you may still find it rather useful.

Crick's prices and licensing scheme has always been kept simple and I have often said that other manufacturers should learn from this. A new Clicker 5 licence is £120 and £20 for additional licenses. The upgrade costs £75 plus £15 for additional licenses. For users buying Clicker 4 from around now until the new version is released Crick will be offering a special upgrade price - probably just £30 and £5 respectively to match the difference in price between Clicker 4 and 5.